Archive for November, 2012

I hate lines and traffic so much I could just … spit.

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Little undoes my impatient reptile brain more than lines, lines anywhere.  Stores?  If it is a long line, I will often just leave.  This is matched by a nervous obsession with grocery store lines.  I begin my “scan” well ahead of approaching check out, doing it anxiously, searching for the shortest line, even if it is shorter only by a factor of one.   Traffic … no different.

And spiritual work is often in those very mundane facets of life – the “waitings.”  What does it say about me that I have crazed relationship with lines? It says the same thing about me that it says about you I imagine.  We are impatient control freaks who expect “service.”  But what if “waiting” could be something more.  Here is the late David Foster Wallace’s take ….

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice.Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities…

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things…

It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us…

So, the moral of the story, may you be blessed with many opportunities for spiritual growth this Christmas Season!

“Thoughts on Hearing Anne Lamott, Author of “Help, Thanks, Wow”

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Last night I was privileged to hear Anne Lamott, author of “Help, Thanks, Wow” speak in Bryn Mawr.  I even got to meet her before the event.  She has been a favored contemporary author for years – up there with Richard Rohr, Shane Claiborne, Walter Brueggemann and Mary Karr.  What her voice adds to my life is an honest and freeing appraisal of life.

  1. We are so ruined
  2. We are so loved
  3. We are in charge of so little
As a single mother, recovered drug addict, alcoholic, and still practicing neurotic she speaks movingly to that first point, one I find deeply relieving in its unadorned honesty.   We are all so goofy, for lack of a better word.  My congregation is blessed (cursed?:)) with a Pastor who compulsively worries.  From donations to the future of Penn State football to children in the Gaza strip, my worry at times knows no bounds.  It is nice to hear from a fellow Christian – a follower of that “sweet brown eyed Jew” as she would say it – that even in a life connected with God, we are just so ruined … and loved.
From that place, I can with God’s grace, despite myself, more peacefully draw alongside of the simple truth that I am in charge of so little.
Then, to use her words, “You can go from monkey island, with endless chatter, umbrage, and poop-throwing, to what is happening right in front of me now.”  A good place to be!

Why Religion Matters

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Religion matters.  It matters a great deal.  And the questions is “Why?”

I shy away from holding people’s eternal lives hostage to a declaration of certain prescribed religious pronouncements.  But I don’t shy from saying that religion can be one of the most wonderfully disruptive forces we can welcome into our lives.  We need, so badly, those disruptions.

This is a picture of our culture.  It is a photograph from a “Black Friday” checkout line.   It is us largely at our very worse.  We live deeply immersed in a consumer culture and consumer ethos.  The driving force then of cultural advancement then becomes material comfort.  Material comfort creates a bloated, satiated culture, one asleep but always with more tryptophan on the way to keep us in our happy daze.

Religion consistently reminds me …

  1. There is more than me
  2. Sin is actually real.  I am an asshole at times – a lot of the time actually.  I need to forgive when others are the same.
  3. Getting down on my knees in prayer helps me to stand as a man in areas of need
  4. Money is a tool but it is not my God
  5. Courage means “where the heart lives.”  God has more courage than I do – HIs heart is a lot bigger – and has helped me do things I could never do myself.

The consumer culture reaches its end one of two ways.  Either we come to realize, after trying its faltering promises, that is has nothing to offer or we simply run our planet into the ground in the relentless pursuit of stuff.   It does not end because we come to find contentment in consumerism’s arms.  Religion critically wakes us up to the “More” – a different kind of “More” – one that is disruptive, powerful, and ultimately healing.

Thoughts on Thanksgiving 2012

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

“Life is Gift.”  That is where we left the service on Sunday.  And that is no small thing, no give away line.

It starts with a critical claim – the cost of ingratitude is great.  Ingratitude contracts lives, darkens perceptions, dulls senses.  It lowers us quickly into the role of victim, and the anger and apathy that victimhood engenders. The question of “What are the costs of ingratitude?” deserves to be hammered around a bit. I imagine the costs so often escape our attention and that there may be a great deal of value in putting words around those costs.

Gratitude however occupies far different terrain.  Gratitude I imagine is a subtle art, harder to practice than ingratitude.  A case in point … I wrote recently to our board a note of gratitude.  What struck me in writing it was a dawning realization of what I witnessed that Sunday but failed to notice until retracing my steps, figuratively, that day.

There were of course the speakers at NewChurch LIVE Sunday, a mother and her son, who found words to share the experience of Hurricane Sandy and, crazy to say, the uplifting observations they were witness to in their town, a town where 95% of the homes suffered flood damage.  And there was more … people connecting, tears of support and shared grief, hands extended to help – all outside the arena of the actual service.  All inhabiting this orbit of a small church.

It is not that any of that in itself, taken in isolation, was overtly, dramatically profound.  It only became profound when I noticed it.  And maybe that is the lesson this Thanksgiving.  Notice it.  We function so often on “auto” that we fail to see that already is.  And what is is Gift.


1,000 Rockets

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Events unfolding in Gaza are troubling.  I find myself unable to grasp it.  I read this morning that over the past week over 1,000 rockets have been launched out of Gaza at Israel.  Israel, as is well documented, continues to retaliate with air strikes and the threat of invasion.  And none of it makes sense.  None of it.

The crudeness of weapons will continue to be refined leading not to less collateral damage but to more targeted damage that people mistakenly believe in the end will curtail violence.  Yet there is nothing in human history that evidences that progression, a progression in which the increased sophistication of weaponry is mistakenly believed to give birth to more peace.  We are not less violent for having moved from swords to F-18′s.

And the problem is not “out there” but as always “in here.”  We simply have to choose differently.

And we can find those answers.  I actually believe we know them. The choice however has been to ignore them in the heated rhetoric and political posturing that press us towards the darkness of vengeance.  There is an actual “living energy” far different than that darkness, as New Church theology phrases it, imbedded in our souls awaiting our awareness.  Where is that voice in the Middle East?  Where is that voice in us?  Where is the voice that echos with Christ’s clear call in the face of violence – “The pain stops HERE!”

Petraeus and the Falling of Idols

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus is a sad moment, a resignation stemming from an affair, recently uncovered, with his biographer Paula Broadwell.  While such behavior is not unknown in the upper reaches of government or business, neither is it unknown among the population at large.

The pervasiveness of infidelity in our culture does not mitigate the incredible lapse of judgement displayed by Petraeus.  The danger lies in this – with our cultural attentiveness myopically focused on this man’s lapses, we miss a far broader picture and a far bigger lesson, one we can see if we are willing to not just see the problem “out there” but able to own it “in here.”

Does Petraeus really surprise?  It does not for me.  The broader picture is this – we are a fallen and flawed people.  We have created a culture awash with addictive behavior – sexual and otherwise.  We spend large parts of our lives driven not by the higher angels of our nature but by our compulsions, fears, anxieties, neurosis.  That drive not infrequently pulls us into actions that are transparently insane.  And, Petraeus has an affair.

That does not mean we live in a world devoid of hope.  We can live in world filled with hope however it is a hope born of the sober acknowledgement that all of us are born with feet of clay.  Such a world maintains appropriate boundaries and accountability as well as a right-sized perspective on the foibles of humanity.  What it does not do is pretend, the great game of pretend so readily fostered in a culture that relishes scape goating, relishes in seeing these issues as “out there.”

These things are in us.  The idols we need to see fall are not solely the Petraeus’s of the world but the idols of our own heart.

Elections 2012: The Choices We Have

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

The election is now over with the re-election of President Barrack Obama.  As Mitt Romney noted in his concession speech, “The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.”   Living in a time when we must learn anew how to act within an era in need of urgent repair, I could not agree more.

One of the enduring images for me from the election was the gracious reaction of all parties involved when hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast. The Presidential candidates effectively stopped campaigning at the national level for a period of days.  What does that say?  I believe it speaks to the humanity in us – a divine inheritance – that strongly resonates with the deep knowledge that much of politicking is shallow pandering and that a more honest reality lies beneath the waves.  Crisis does that.  Shocks us in a sense into who we are, forcing us to rise the occasion.

Can we stay in that place?  Not for extended periods but for long enough to remind us yet gain of the more important truths of human existence.

Regardless of who was elected, the problems we face will remain and will take that very Sandy-esque approach to movement forward.  That gnawing anxiety many feel in the face of uncertainty can be leavened by the hopeful  who remain humbly in the place that God is in charge and that the human voice carries within the seeds of transformation.

As author William Faulkner put it in Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

Thoughts on the Election and Looking to the Future

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Tonight the poles will close and approximately half of America will go to bed deeply disappointed.  And there is a choice at that point, one captured by author Anne Lamott’s words,  “I am going to keep the patient comfortable, whoever that is. I’m going to stay busy, and as usual, I’m going to keep it simple–left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. I’m going to do crazy loving things, and I’m going to keep the faith.”

Her advice is well taken.  There is blessedly, not an “end of the line” in terms of elections … a President, Congressmen, Judge who will spell the end of America as we know it.  Politicians. elected officials carry great power, true. But they hardly act in a vacuum.  And, sadly or joyously to say, the final choice is us … our choices, our decisions, are actions.

I suspect we are in a time of immense challenge and disruption.   Last night, listening to Rabbi Peter Ochs speak in Princeton, he noted how in the dark, we grasp, a panicked grasping that often leads to hyper atheism or hyper orthodoxy.   In both cases, as he poignantly noted, “Our ears are closed by our own hearing.”

And we need to move beyond both those reactions, finding a place of softened wise choice between “appropriate defense and crusade, from moral stance and demonization of others, from caution before the evidence to intransigence and prejudice.”  None of that displays well faced with the heated rhetoric and hyperbole of elections!

The future lies in that middle space, a space where we are “weaned from the cultural narcissism” and able to move towards the softened path of God … a lived prayer where we talk to God and not just ourselves.